The world is changing fast and to keep up you need local knowledge with global context.
Russia’s hypocritical bully boy, whose view of the world is driven by the fantasy that he can somehow reverse the collapse of the Soviet Union, is tacitly supported by a minority of dysfunctional, corruption-riven governments, including our own. Ivo Vegter, writing in the Daily Friend, picks apart Vladimir Putin’s justifications for invading Ukraine while showing that where his fears are justified – as in the real expansion of NATO – he’s accelerating their manifestation. Russia’s neighbouring countries, previously prevaricating on joining NATO, are now lining up to join the defensive alliance. Vegter sketches the history of the region to sift propaganda from truth, including Putin’s claim of Ukraine’s ‘Nazism’ when his own country hosts the world’s greatest concentration of Nazis. Perhaps the most worrying aspect is that our government has firmly put itself in the camp of a minority of despotic, collapsing and/or dysfunctional countries by abstaining to vote at the UN on the Russian invasion. A worthwhile read. – Chris Bateman
Examining Putin’s motives
By Ivo Vegter*
Putin and his apologists have raised a number of claims to justify the invasion of Ukraine. Only one motive is true; the others are smokescreens and the sole true motive is not valid.
South Africa, shamefully, has kissed the ring of Vladimir Putin, maintaining a ‘cordial and friendly’ relationship with a corrupt dictatorship that has just started an unjustified and unnecessary war.
At the UN General Assembly, South Africa joined 35 other countries in abstaining from a vote to condemn Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Only five countries – Russia, Syria, North Korea, Belarus and Eritrea – voted against the resolution. Within BRICS, India and China also abstained, but Brazil voted in favour of the resolution.
On 24 February, US president Joe Biden said: “Any nation that countenances Russia’s naked aggression against Ukraine will be stained by association.”
South Africa, then, will be judged by the company it keeps: Algeria, Angola, Armenia, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Burundi, Central African Republic, China, Congo, Cuba, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, India, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Laos, Madagascar, Mali, Mongolia, Mozambique, Namibia, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Senegal, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Tajikistan, Uganda, Tanzania, Vietnam and Zimbabwe.
Some of these countries will fear obliteration if they vote against Russia. The rest are hardly the vanguard of freedom, justice, democracy and human rights in the world. On the contrary: they are, for the most part, autocratic, socialist countries where poverty and human rights abuses are a daily reality for their citizens. Some company. By failing to condemn Russia’s aggression, the Ramaphosa regime wiped its arse with the values enshrined in the Constitution.
Let the world know that Ramaphosa does not speak for all South Africans.
Meanwhile, though Biden in his State of the Union address stole my line about Putin having badly miscalculated, Russia’s slow-motion invasion is still likely to succeed.
Despite all the anecdotal reports and social media accounts coming out of Ukraine, many of which will be coloured by propaganda, and despite the fact that in the three days since my last column, Russia has taken only a small port city the size of George, the Russian military remains an overwhelming force and should not be underestimated.
It will struggle to occupy and govern Ukraine against widespread resistance, but Putin has also said that doing so is not his goal. It very likely can make resistance painful enough to extract major concessions from Ukraine’s government, or even to effect regime change and reinstall a Putin puppet.
Putin’s war declaration
Some commentators in South Africa, especially those loyal to the ruling ANC or their mini-me, the EFF, have echoed aspects of the official Russian position, such as that Russia is coming to the defence of the oppressed people of the separatist Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics, or that NATO provoked the war with its eastward expansion. Let’s consider Putin’s own words, and see how they hold up under the cold light of reality.
He starts by noting “the constant threat emanating from the territory of the modern Ukraine”. It is unclear what he means by ‘modern Ukraine’, but Russia has a long history of interfering in Ukrainian internal affairs, going so far as poisoning opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, who was poised to take power from the illegitimate Viktor Yanukovich during the peaceful Orange Revolution of 2004.
Power changed hands several times, until Yanukovich signalled a move away from Europe and towards Russia, which led to the widespread Euromaidan protests of 2014. These culminated in the Revolution of Dignity and prompted the impossibly wealthy and deeply corrupt Yanukovich to flee to Russia.
Russia considered the parliamentary vote to oust Yanukovich to be illegitimate, although it really had no say in Ukraine’s internal affairs. Pro-Russian majorities in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk formed breakaway states in protest, and Russia moved to invade and annex the Crimean Peninsula, without much resistance.
Outside of these small separatist regions in the south-east, a majority of the Ukrainian people considered the change of government to be a popular revolution, rather than an illegal armed coup, as Russia alleged. The governments since 2014 – led first by Petro Poroshenko and then by Volodymyr Zelenskyy – were the result of free and fair elections (and a land-slide victory in Zelenskyy’s case). They were recognised as legitimate by the entire world, including Russia itself.
These two presidents, however, restored Ukraine’s pro-European stance, so Putin likely means these two post-2014 governments when he refers to ‘modern Ukraine’.
What he means by ‘the constant threat emanating’ from its territory, however, is a mystery. Ukraine has never posed a threat beyond its borders, whether to Russia or anyone else.
Russia, on the contrary, continued its interference, with military assistance – and alleged military participation – in the ongoing separatist civil war in the small south-eastern Donbas region containing the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.
It is interesting that Putin does not mention the Minsk agreements anywhere in the speech announcing his ‘special military operation’. These agreements, which aimed to put an end to the civil war over Donetsk and Luhansk, were repeatedly violated by both sides, but primarily by the militias of the two self-proclaimed, Russian-supported People’s Republics. It is the supposed cry for help of these separatist regions that Putin claims as a pretext for invading not only those regions, but all of Ukraine.
He claims that Ukraine was conducting a genocide against the Russian-speaking people of the breakaway regions, but has provided no evidence whatsoever of this claim. Nobody else ever described Ukraine’s defence against separatist militias as a genocide. The United Nations certainly didn’t recognise it. So, Putin just made that up.
Putin first recognised the independence of the two separatist regions, which is a violation of international law. He had no right to create independent states in the sovereign territory of another nation, nor did he have a right to offer military support to their cause. This interference is itself a gross violation of international law.
To establish a pretext for war, Putin then not only recognised the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, respectively, but also immediately signed an alliance of mutual defence with them, as if they were internationally recognised independent countries. This enabled him to appeal to Article 51 in Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which guarantees the right to individual and collective self-defence. This whole legal construction is a blatantly false pretext for war.
Putin’s aim to ‘demilitarise’ the Ukraine is, ipso facto, a violation of international law. Ukraine is a sovereign country and is entitled to maintain a standing army, both for use in the civil war in the Donbas region, and for defence against potentially aggressive neighbours. If anything, Putin has proved why Ukraine needs a standing army.
He also said ‘denazification’ is an aim. That will come as a surprise to Ukraine’s Jewish president, Zelenskyy, and to Ukrainians who witnessed Putin bomb the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial.
Ukraine has a complex history with Nazis, though. During the Second World War, they viewed the invading Germans as liberators from Stalin’s Soviet Union, even though Nazis saw Slavs as Untermenschen. This was perhaps not surprising, given how Stalin had recently caused a genocidal famine in Ukraine, and was still raiding its farm produce to support the Red Army.
More recently, the Azov Battalion was involved in the defence of the Donbas region against Russian-backed separatists. That unit is indeed a far-right neo-Nazi group, and it has been accused of war crimes and human rights abuses. Although Ukrainians are largely grateful to them for their role in the defence of the country, one cannot condone their political leanings or their extra-legal actions.
However, these issues surfaced six years ago. It makes no sense for Russia to intervene only now. More importantly, this is not a matter that justifies foreign intervention, anyway. It is entirely an internal matter.
Russia itself has a massive neo-Nazi problem. Over half of the world’s neo-Nazis are in Russia, numbering some 50,000 to 70,000 strong. German neo-Nazis receive military training in St Petersburg. Neo-Nazis commit violent crimes against minorities in Russia. Russians routinely refer to the darker-skinned people of Central Asia and the Caucasus region, as well as to black Africans, as ‘черножопый (chernozhopy)’, which is an ethnic slur equivalent to the N-word. Racist abuse is rife among Russian sports fans.
This means Russia has no high ground from which to lecture anyone on neo-Nazism. Yet, in the interest of fairness, one has to recognise that these, too, are internal matters and are not grounds for Ukraine or anyone else to invade Russia.
Some months ago, Putin issued a list of demands that had to be met to ‘lower tensions’ in Europe. Key among those demands was to refuse Ukraine membership of NATO, to halt NATO’s expansion eastwards, and to withdraw NATO troops and weapons to the alliance’s 1990 borders.
He said that upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the United States had promised not to expand NATO further than the re-unified Germany. This is true.
Now, Putin apologists and even some Western analysts say that NATO provoked Russia into military action. Putin drew a line in the sand and NATO crossed it by refusing to halt its expansion. This is also true.
In 1999, the first former Warsaw Pact countries – Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic – joined NATO, after having requested entry as early as 1991. Five years later, it was the turn of Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. Albania and Croatia joined in 2009, Montenegro in 2017, and North Macedonia in 2020.
NATO has recognised Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia and Ukraine as aspiring members, and several other countries are contemplating joining, including Finland, Sweden and Serbia. No doubt the breach of the 1990 undertaking not to expand NATO irks Putin. He has described the expansion of NATO as ‘aggression’. He is wrong, however.
After the fall of the Iron Curtain and the collapse of the Soviet Union, former Warsaw Pact countries became free, independent and sovereign. They are not Putin’s to control. Nobody can force them to join ‘spheres of influence’, nor prevent them from joining defensive alliances of their choice.
Putin might be upset by the decline and fall of the Russian Empire, and the dissolution of its former sphere of influence. He might be offended that even neighbouring former Soviet Republics, like Georgia and Ukraine, are choosing to join NATO (and the European Union).
He does not, however, have the right to draw a line in the sand, to prevent the exercise of sovereign power of any of these countries, however. Choosing to join or leave international alliances is an inherent right of sovereign countries.
NATO is not an aggressive alliance, even though Putin used the example of the intervention in the former Yugoslavia as evidence that it was. NATO is a purely defensive alliance. Russia has nothing to fear from NATO, unless it attacks NATO members.
Ironically, Russia is a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme, which is meant to create trust between NATO countries and non-NATO countries in Europe and the former Soviet Union. Perhaps that programme isn’t working so well.
NATO only accepts as members countries that have requested membership, that fulfil the requirements of a democratic government with a market economy, that protects minorities, and that have the ability and willingness to contribute to joint defence missions. These countries make free, sovereign choices in their international alliances, with which Russia has no right to interfere.
Putin might feel provoked, but he’s like the bully who punches someone merely for looking at him funny. He had no basis, in international law or natural justice, to react aggressively to his feelings of provocation. He is now the aggressor. He has become the provoker.
Ironically, he has brought about the exact thing he was protesting against: the further expansion of NATO, and indeed the EU. Ukraine, mere days after the start of the invasion, applied for fast-track membership of the EU. Georgia, which has suffered an invasion by Russia before, and Moldova, a small country to the southwest of Ukraine with a coastline on the Black Sea, have likewise applied for membership to the EU in recent days. They can’t get out of their abusive relationship with Putin fast enough.
Sweden and Finland are also warming to the idea of NATO membership, even though Putin threatened both countries with military action if they did join.
On Russia’s western flank, this would leave only Belarus outside of NATO and frankly, those two benighted countries deserve each other. Under even cursory scrutiny, all the justifications of Putin, and his apologists in South Africa and around the world, turn out to be either false, or invalid.
That makes Putin the aggressor, the bully who needs to be stopped. There is simply no other way to look at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine without being ‘stained by association’ with Putin.
- Ivo Vegter is a freelance journalist, columnist and speaker who loves debunking myths and misconceptions, and addresses topics from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. Follow him on Twitter, @IvoVegter.
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